Alarming Consumer Reports Study: Your Sunscreen May Not Work

In an alarming new study by Consumer Reports, one third of sunscreens tested didn’t offer the protection promised on their labels. Out of the 34 sunscreens put to the test, 11 failed to meet their SPF and water-resistant claims.

The watchdog group focused particularly on how sunscreens hold up against UVA and UVB rays after they have been exposed to water. They sampled a wide range of price points from drugstore brands to fancy European suncare. To see how the sunscreens held up, they were applied to tester’s backs, and submerged in water for the amount of time that the sunscreen promised to hold up. For example, if the product claimed to be waterproof for an hour, that is how long testers would stay drenched.  Afterwards testers were exposed to an ultra violet light to determine the effectiveness of the product against the sun’s rays.

The 11 sunscreens that didn’t live up to expectations missed their target by anywhere from 16% to 70%. Interestingly, 8 of the 11 had an SPF below 30. While it’s clear an SPF 30 or above is a good target to look for, don’t be fooled into thinking SPFs of 50 or above is always going to add a ton of protection. Several of the high SPF products don’t offer as much SPF as they claim. Coppertone ClearlySheer for Beach & Pool SPF 50+ tested as an SPF 37, and Banana Boat Sport Performance with Powerstay Technology SPF 100 tested as an SPF 36.

The other red flag brought up by the study was about natural sunscreens, pointing out that the word “natural” means nothing on a label. They do acknowledge that it is often used to refer to products that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients. Consumer Reports states that “so-called naturals are less likely to offer skin the complete protection it needs.” They tested five mineral sunscreens and three failed. Of the two that did meet their SPF claim, neither received enough high scores to be recommended including California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, and Goddess Garden Organics Sunny Body Natural 30.

However, while the study is alarming, it’s worth noting that the test was really focused on how sunscreens hold up in water, which may not be a fair test. “Given that we tell people to reapply sunscreen when coming out of the water, you should look at this study with caution,” says Manhattan-based dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah. Ultimately, the study should be a reminder that sunscreen alone, isn’t the best protection. “If you are going in the water wear a rash guard. If you are outside, wear sun protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses too,” explains dermatologist Dr. Ava Shamban. “Remember, sunscreen is not the end all be all. Don’t stop using it, but use other forms of protection too.”

Here are the sunscreens that earned the top ratings:

1. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk, SPF 60.
2. Vichy Capital Soleil 50 Lightweight Foaming Lotion, SPF 50
3. Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50
4. Equate Ultra Protection, SPF 50
5. No-Ad Sport SPF 50

Here are the sunscreens that earned the lowest ratings:

1. Vanicream SPF 50
2. Goddess Garden Organics Sunny Body Natural 30
3. Yes to Cucumbers Natural SPF 30
4. Elta MD UV Aero SPF 45
5. Aloe Gator SPF 40